SpaceX relies on satellite Internet. In vain?

Internet access has spread so much inThe United States and Western Europe, which gave rise to the whole dependence of people on the Web. Yet for about half of the world's population, this level of connectivity is simply unattainable. Over the past three months, almost 4 billion people have not been online - and the UN has a very low threshold for representing someone as an Internet user - which means that they are missing out on the many social, economic and educational benefits that Internet connectivity provides.

Silicon Valley entrepreneurs quicklyrealized that connecting the whole world represents a great business opportunity if you wrap it in a pleasant to the touch wrapper of a humanitarian mission. Balloons and drones, distributing the Internet, were not the best idea. But there was another thought, just as bold and perhaps more realistic: Internet satellites. Thousands and thousands of them.

Last week, SpaceX was supposed to launch 60Internet satellites in low Earth orbit, but delayed the launch. They will be the first members of the Starlink satellite mega constellation. Read how it will work. The 226-kilogram “flat” satellites will be sent to an altitude of almost 450 kilometers above the Earth on a Falcon 9 rocket, after which they will use onboard ion engines to reach a final orbital altitude of 550 kilometers.

Starlink Project: How do SpaceX Internet satellites work?

These satellites are still at the stage"Production design". They will not include many of the planned features, including laser cross-links, which will allow satellites to communicate with each other in orbit. But they represent the first big step towards the company's long-term plan. By 2027, SpaceX plans to place 12,000 satellites in orbit and distribute high-speed Internet to dozens of millions of users all over the planet.

However, the history of satellite Internet is fullfailures, including one of the largest corporate bankruptcies in history. It was a reality that Ilon Mask frankly admitted to reporters. “No one has ever succeeded in creating a viable orbital communication constellation the first time,” Musk said. "I truly believe that we will succeed, but this is not certain."

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Failure can come in different forms. SpaceX will face tough competition from other satellite operators and terrestrial broadband providers, huge regulatory obstacles, but in the end it may turn out that the demand for satellite Internet is not that big. In short, entering the satellite broadband market is a big risk. And yet, SpaceX has no other choice. Musk made it clear that the ultimate mission of SpaceX is to send people to Mars, but the price will be astronomical. A NASA study in 2014 estimated the cost of a man’s mission to Mars at $ 220 billion. SpaceX’s income from launch contracts alone, which, according to Mask, is about $ 3 billion annually, is hardly enough to transport a person to the Red Planet.

In the revenue forecast for 2016, SpaceX indicatedthat by 2025, its launch services will bring about $ 5 billion in revenue, which is much less than the $ 30 billion projected in the form of income from Starlink Internet services. The company has not published any details about the pricing structure of its Internet services or how much ground stations will cost for users. But the fate of past efforts to launch the Internet satellite constellations, as well as the likely future developments, suggests that SpaceX may have to adjust its rainbow expectations.

In the US, satellite broadband Internetfor the most part, two companies supplied: Hughes Network Systems and ViaSat. Their satellites are in geosynchronous orbit, that is, they never change their position relative to the surface of the Earth. Although according to various estimates, there are 15-18 million unattended or under-served houses in the US, Hughes and ViaSat have only about 2.5 million satellite Internet customers.

The reason why Hughes did not attract morecustomer base is tied to performance and cost effectiveness, says Paul Gasquet, executive vice president of Hughes. Hughes has only two broadband satellites offering services in the USA, and she plans to add another satellite to her fleet in 2021 to attract more customers. But a more serious problem will be the prohibitive cost of the service.

In the US, satellite Internet is firstattracts rural households that are not serviced over a fiber optic or cable connection. Internet service from geosynchronous satellites is subject to a long delay, because the signal must travel thousands of kilometers of empty space and come back, which can lead to a delay of up to half a second.

What is better: satellite Internet or 5G?

Starlink and its competitors, such as OneWeb,Amazon's Telesat and Project Kuiper have adopted a new approach to satellite Internet. Instead of placing several large satellites in geosynchronous orbit, these companies want to place thousands of broadband satellites in low earth orbit. These satellites are just a few hundred kilometers above the Earth, so they can reduce delays to 20 milliseconds, which from the point of view of the average user will be barely noticeable.

SpaceX, like the Internet satellite operator,the big problem will be how to stand out from other satellite constellations that will operate in low-Earth orbit, says Roger Rush, president of TelAstra, a consulting company that advises investors in the satellite industry. In addition to Starlink, OneWeb and Telesat also announced intentions to create broadband satellite constellations on the IEO - they will derive 650 and 292 satellites. In February, OneWeb launched the first batch of six satellites. Soon after, Amazon announced the Kuiper project, in which 3236 broadband Internet satellites will be launched at the NOU.

The launch of satellites into orbit is probablyThe easiest part of creating satellite mega constellations. All the most difficult remains on Earth. In April, SpaceX received FCC approval for the creation of one million ground stations to be used by customers to communicate with satellites passing overhead. Unlike fixed satellite dishes used to communicate with geosynchronous satellites, which should point only to one part of the sky, SpaceX antennas with a phased array monitor satellites as they pass overhead.

These types of antennas are likely to be expensive forcustomers, says Rush. Given that affordability is already one of the biggest barriers to the introduction of the Internet, this can be a serious obstacle for SpaceX. SpaceX will also have to cover the significant costs of building and launching satellite gateways, which are essentially large switching stations where satellites connect to the Network. In April, SpaceX received permission from the FCC to build four satellite gateways in the United States, but several such stations will also have to be built abroad.

This raises the question of whether there is enough market forsupport one, not to mention the four mega-constellations of several billion dollars. Although Starlink, Telesat, OneWeb and Project Kuiper are trying to connect the whole world, there may not be enough people in the world who can afford their services. “Is there enough demand in the world for all these capacities that will appear in the network over the next 10 years? Nobody knows, ”says Matt Desh, CEO of Iridium, a satellite communications company that handles voice and data. "Investment markets are clearly worried, so new markets are slowly getting financing."

SpaceX will also have to compete with groundInternet service providers. Even if SpaceX can reduce the delay to 20 milliseconds and match the average Internet download speed in the US (about 93 megabits per second), the emergence of 5G can undermine its business. 5G promises to increase the bandwidth up to 10 gigabits per second on the phone. Considering that Starlink will unfold not earlier than 2027, even at the slowest pace of development, we will see 5G earlier.

Of course, Musk was never afraid of great trials. It was he who created the companies that openly challenged all agreements in the banking, automotive and aerospace industries. It was he who made possible what was considered impossible ten years ago. Space has never been easy.

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